Sep 15, 2012
Preached on the occasion of a combined Uniting Churches celebration service in the City of Toowoomba, Queensland, Sunday the 16th of September 2012
The theme for this service is “beyond the furthest fences”.... The question I want to ask, the question I want you to ponder, and the question I want to have a bit of a go at answering, is what led John Flynn, John the Baptist and Jesus, to go beyond the furthest fence and into the wilderness?
Faced with the things they faced the missions of these three men must have seemed hopeless.
If we start with John the Baptist and our reading. John has his ministry in a time when Jerusalem and surrounds is ruled by the Roman Empire. It was the great power of its time. A large and organized nation or Kingdom could defend themselves against Rome but Israel was not large or well organised. There were resistance groups but these were hopelessly divided. In the period following Jesus death and resurrection, Jewish resistance to Rome grew but the infighting together with the sheer size and might of Rome, led to the Jewish Rebels not only being defeated but Jerusalem was destroyed including the Temple which was razed to the ground.
That wasn’t the only problem the religious world was divided too. There were the Pharisees, who like John wanted Israel to repent, they wanted people to return to the faith but over time this desire turned into legalism with over 600 rules and regulations. There were the Essenes who lived out in the desert like an order of Monks trying to keep themselves pure and clean from the contaminating world. There were the Sadducees who controlled the temple and acted as the city council of Jerusalem. They owed their power to Rome and made their money through the temple taxes and the money changers. They were despised by the pharisees the essenes and the ordinary people as corrupt and collaborators. And the picture I paint is a very simplistic one for many of these groups were also hopelessly divided amongst themselves.
It is into this apparently hopeless setting that John speaks his message of preparing for the arrival of God. He quotes the Prophets crying out that he is the messenger preparing the way of the Lord. He gathers people to him in the outback saying “prepare the way of the Lord make his paths straight.” Repent be baptised.
Now as I’ve just explained the need for that repentance and for forgiveness was huge. Israel was in a terrible mess. The people needed to turn to God, but surely the cause was hopeless. Despite John’s preaching, despite the crowds that came out to see him and were baptised, the people remained divided, corrupted and occupied. In less than a year John ends up arrested and dead, executed by the sword of Herod. So why did he do it? What drove John beyond the fences, and into this mad and hopeless mission?
Just four verses later Jesus begins his mission with these words “and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”” (Mark 1:15, NRSV)
They are almost an exact copy of what John was saying. The Kingdom of God is near, is among you is beginning now! God is coming and in some sense has already come! If that’s true people then we need to turn to God who has already turned to us. But of course what Jesus is facing is exactly the same as John. But he tells people to love each other, he reaches out to the despised and rejected, he touches the unclean, he feeds the multitude in the desert, he calls people to a new and better vision of life. He tells them that God loves them and cares for them. And what happens to him, he ends up dead on a Roma cross, rejected by his own people, and deserted by his friends. Like most of you I believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Why would God enter into this mess, why would God go beyond the farthest fence into our human desert, only to die in that wilderness?
John Flynn was faced with very different set of challenges. He felt called by God beyond the farthest fence to outback Australia. When he began his work the only forms of communication were the telegraph which only went to some of the towns and mail which even in the dry season could take weeks to arrive. Medical care was practically non existent. And on the Spiritual front, it was said that there were people who had not even heard of Christmas and Easter and there were very few Bibles let alone ministers. Yet he had a dream of a mantle of safety that would cover the continent, that people in the remotest of places would be able to access medical care. He dreamed that the scriptures would be available and the word of God would be proclaimed in every station, camp and by every billabong. What on earth possessed him to attempt such a mad project and begin such a mad mission? What drove him beyond the farthest fence?
So why did they do it? What drove him beyond the farthest fence? John the Baptist believed God was coming, God was about to do something new and amazing. God was about to break into history in a new and wonderful way.
John was filled with a mad vision of hope, believing that even this most hopeless situation of Israel could be transformed into the Kingdom of God. And when God came the baptism was not going to be in water for repentance it was going to be in the Holy Spirit. The promised one would come and bring this about and our Christian faith has taught us that this promised one was Jesus. But just a moment ago we left Jesus dead outside the city wall the city, outside the farthest fence, dead on a Roman cross.
To understand our reading from Mark and to understand John the Baptist and Jesus and John Flynn, we have to recognise that we see their story from somewhere near the end. The New Testament was written after the Resurrection. The end of the story is not the cross, or the sword of Herod, the end of the story is the resurrection, the empty tomb, Jesus is alive. He is Risen.
Walter Breuggeman, perhaps the greatest living Biblical scholar argues that as Christians “as strange as it... seems,... [we] understand and live all of life in response to the... God who brings slaves out of bondage and who brings life out of death.”(1) We are the people of the resurrection. It is because we believe that God in Christ is alive and with us, that we have been baptised with the Holy Spirit, it is because of this that we live and that we dare to go beyond the farthest fence.
John the Baptist did not get to see this but he believed that something like that was going to happen. The promised one was coming, God was about to appear in a powerful and special way and the Spirit was about to be poured out. In the same way Jesus’ life and teaching and even the cross only make sense in the light of Easter Sunday.
What about John Flynn, what’s this got to do with him. Well I’m pretty certain that one of Flynn’s main motivations was the resurrection. Even before he founded the AIM he was involved in a number of Shearer’s missions in outback Australia. At those meetings he distributed a little booklet he had edited and substantially written called “The Bushman’s Companion”. It’s full of first aid advice, has a simple cash book, a calendar, information about postage, and a section called “A ramble through ideals”. The last ideal dealt with is entitled “the resurrected self”.
He begins that section by writing
"I am the resurrection and the life," says Christ.
It is not easy for us to accept that statement.
But, once accepted, it brings before us, the vision of another self, a vision which must deeply influence the life of the beholder;...
For the confidence of resurrection does change the whole outlook of life, and even give outlook where, previously, it seemed to be utterly absent.
Flynn goes on to suggest that the resurrection is a powerful motivator in two ways.
First it brings hope where there seems to be none. Is there no medical care, are there no communications, are there men and women who have not even heard that there is a Christmas and an Easter? Then as mad as it seems let’s send out ministers on horseback, Christian nurses to remote country towns, let’s try this new fangled radio thing and see if we can’t power it with bicycle pedals and lets send doctors across the trackless wastes, beyond the farthest fence in flying machines. Why because as mad and as hopeless as it seems, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who brings life out of death can surely also do these things.
Second Flynn argued that the resurrected life was a spur to effort in this life. (3) If we are raised with Christ then while we will be remade or recreated “We shall still be ourselves. Individuality persists even through the grave and resurrection.” For him this meant that the bush man or woman who had never heard the Christmas and Easter story had an eternal being, and needed to hear that message. It also meant that those who needed medical care, and Spiritual comfort, and the ability to communicate, needed those things because these acts of service and compassion would be reflected in their eternity. The Padre’s visit, the nurse’s care, and the wireless message from afar would live on into eternity with those who received them. For this it was more than worthwhile to go beyond the furthest fence and to cry out in the wilderness.
Flynn went beyond the furthest fence to the remotest people of the continent and God used him to do some wonderful and amazing things. John the Baptist went beyond the furthest fence to the outback Judea with the hope that God was about to do something wonderful. Jesus jumped all the fences of his culture, even unto death so we could know God’s love and risen life.
Where are we prepared to go? What fences is God asking us to cross? How in our time will we share the good news of Jesus and live out God’s love?